Gregory Porter: Nat "King" Cole & Me (review)

Photo: Blue Note Records

With lush arrangements courtesy of Vince Mendoza, Gregory Porter shines on a tribute to one of his major influences Nat "King" Cole.

The notion of Gregory Porter recording a Nat King Cole tribute album almost makes too much sense. With a voice that can alternate between silky highs and warm grumbling lows, the two-time Grammy-winning Porter is unquestionably one of the most important male jazz vocalists of our time. In fact, it's easy to imagine him taking up the role of a modern-day Nat Cole: musician, gentleman, ambassador of jazz for today's wide commercial audience.

Gregory Porter

Nat "King" Cole & Me

(Blue Note)

Release date: 27 Oct 2017

Porter is known for writing much of his own material, so it's revealing to hear how he interprets music inextricably linked to Cole. With Nat "King" Cole & Me Porter honors Cole not by mimicking him, but by channeling him: his warmth, his brevity, and his class.

Vocalists are typically the center of attention, but on his previous recordings Porter balanced the spotlight with being a unified ensemble player. On Cole & Me, however, he's unavoidably front and center, and Porter handles this role with grace and a refined stateliness. "Mona Lisa" is just as rich and polished as one would hope, a golden standard that sets up the rest of the record. "Nature Boy" has always been a peculiar tune, but Porter does it justice by acting as a reserved narrator amidst fluttering strings and a delicate texture. By contrast, "Ballerina" is an uptempo swinger brimming with swagger and character.

Producer Vince Mendoza deserves as much credit for the beauty of Cole & Me as Porter. A former conductor of the versatile jazz orchestra Metropole Orkest, Mendoza's lush and creative orchestrations give each song a new sensibility fusing classical textures and jazz colors. His arrangements craft small worlds for each tune that simultaneously honor Cole's legacy while giving Porter new vehicles to call his own. The interactions between harp and horn on "Smile" is tender without being overly sentimental. Likewise, the unity between the string and wind instruments against piano, bass, and drums on "When Love Was King" simply shines.

At 12 tracks the album is lean enough to keep it from lagging into needless idol-worship, yet sometimes it feels a bit like checking off boxes. "L.O.V.E." is a tight rundown, clocking in at just over two minutes, which fits a mold (although it fits it well). Closing track "The Christmas Song" would seem like an odd inclusion if the holiday season were not so close. Considering its swelling strings and cheery sentiment sounds like a heart-warming track you'll hear soon enough on jazz stations. That's not to say these are mediocre tracks–they're rightly beautiful in their own (plus – it must be noted – both share tasteful contributions from trumpet player Terence Blanchard).

This, in part, references the danger of tribute records. Looking towards the past at elders and influences inevitably risks provoking more nostalgia than original material. It becomes a game of clocking out some past hits, some beloved classics, and perhaps an obscure tune or two. The more cynically minded would consider this nothing more than compiling a greatest hits collection and filtering it through a new voice. What makes Nat "King" Cole & Me works is how Porter honors Cole by distilling his influence. There's a bit more bravado in his voice, much less of the reserved quality we can hear in Cole's historic recordings. The lasting impact of modern R&B has sharpened Porter's interpretive ideas, making him a contemporary response to Cole's enduring legacy.







The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.